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Back to the future: how the Royal Air Force's culture toward risk has evolved

Dr Sophy Antrobus

Research Fellow at the Freeman Air and Space Institute

09 January 2024

After some 30 years of flying in generally permissive air environments, the Royal Air Force (RAF) faces the prospect of fighting for control of the air in future operations once again. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that the alternative is attritional, costly in blood and treasure and highly destructive.

In these 30 years, the RAF’s culture related to risk and safety has evolved with changing experiences, understanding, processes, regulations and technological advancements. At the end of the Cold War, the RAF was losing on average around 20 aircraft and crew each year to accidents – losing a squadron of fast jets a year is hard to conceive of in 2024 when the current RAF has so few exquisite and expensive combat aircraft.

Today, accidents are mercifully few and far between. Losses in current operations are much lower, too. The dangers faced in the Falklands or expected scenarios of a hot war in Central Europe do not compare to recent experience of the relatively permissive air environments of the post-9/11 counterinsurgencies. Improved safety is of course desirable for the lives and aircraft saved, but have recent experiences degraded warfighting capabilities?

In his introduction to the newly published Air Operating Concept, the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Sir Rich Knighton, appeared to have this question in mind. Reflecting on a world more contested and volatile than at any time in recent history, he recognised that: ‘When circumstances change, so must we.’ He outlined the evolutions needed in the RAF; the first of which was in its culture so as to ‘engender operational mindsets’. The Air Operating Concept was not designed to explain how those evolutions will happen: the call from CAS is for answers to the ‘so what?’ questions the document poses. My Freeman Paper attempts to deliver some answers.

The paper provides a detailed analysis of the evolution of the RAF over the last few decades in terms of the attitude towards and appetite for risk. The specific experience of fighting wars of choice from 1991 onwards, the changing approach of the RAF to flight safety, technological advances, and the peace dividend expected by politicians and the public after the Cold War: all conspired to reduce incrementally the RAF’s appetite for risk. These combined factors resulted in a situation developing, akin to a slowly boiled frog, where the Air Force’s culture changed slowly over time, but with the cumulative effect constituting far-reaching change which has only become fully apparent in retrospect.

Interviews with former Chiefs of the Air Staff, able to reflect back to the Cold War era, and with former senior officers who worked in the Inspectorate of Flight Safety, combined with archival research and oral histories, allow an articulation of the trajectory of change in the RAF since the late 1980s. Analysis of the recent history of the RAF over the past three decades or so illuminates how and why this change has occurred and highlights the tension between risk aversion and operational effectiveness.

This review of changing attitudes to risk, particularly in the development of flight and air safety in an era of expeditionary operations where the RAF was not required to fight for control of the air, exposes a long-term alteration in risk appetite. The paper argues that, concerning operational risk appetite and air safety, the RAF has gradually moved towards a risk-averse stance.

The paper offers an assessment of the implications of these changes in risk appetite, recommendations for further research, and spotlights relevant concepts that could help the evolution that CAS requires. One such conceptual insight would suggest the need to recalibrate from a Risk Averse to a Risk Sensible culture, based on thinking from the author of The Nimrod Review, Lord Chief Justice Charles Haddon-Cave. He defined this as ‘embracing risk, unbundling it, analysing it and taking a measured and balanced view’.

At the heart of the matter is the need for the RAF to reengage with risk as a way to improve operational effectiveness. In the understandable drive for safety and avoidance of accidents, what capability has been lost? The Air Operating Concept notes that ‘Loosening regulations, raising risk appetites and increasing empowerment, when appropriate and beneficial, will provide the ability to “train hard to fight easy”.’ There will always be tension between risk avoidance and operational effectiveness. Still, risk aversion is a problematic place for a fighting force to occupy. Understanding and articulating better the opportunity that is on offer is perhaps the next step.


The Freeman Air and Space Institute provides independent and original research and analysis of air and space power issues. Based in the School of Security Studies, the Freeman Institute places a priority on identifying, developing and cultivating air and space thinkers in academia and industry, as well as informing and equipping air and space education provision at King’s and beyond.

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Sophy  Antrobus

Sophy Antrobus

Research Fellow at the Freeman Air and Space Institute

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